יום שלישי, 7 בינואר 2014

Amalek - origine and essence

Amalek came - where did he come from?

Pinchas Leiser
To my little grandchildren Michal and Aviatar
and to their parents Yael and Nati
In prayer for their health and development.
May they merit to grow up in times of peace, in a just Israeli society.
With gratitude to the wonderful team
of the premature baby care unit at the Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem,
for their dedicated treatment.
Since the verb form "came" describes a situation of arriving from "one place" to "another", the question is sometimes asked about the origin of the "coming". I put double quotes around the word "place", because sometimes, there is meaning to the place where a person comes from, and it's not necessarily a physical or a geographical place.
For example, in the parasha of Chayei Sarah it is said of Avraham: "Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.Rashi there explains: "From Beer Sheva.", as opposed to the midrashim(Bereishit Rabba Noach 5, and others):
Avraham came to eulogize Sarah- Where did he come from? Rabbi Levy said: "[He] came from Terach's funeral to Sarah's [funeral]." Rabbi Yossi said to him: "Did not Terach's funeral predate Sarah's funeral by two years? Where did he rather come from? From Mount Moriah, and Sarah died from that very grief. Therefore, [the story of] the binding of Itzchak directly precedes 'Sarah's lifetime was...'".
It seems to me that also regarding the episode of Amalek (17:8-16) which is mentioned at the end of our weekly portion and starts with the words "Amalek came" - there is room to ask "where did he come from?" In other words: What is the context in which this story appears in the Torah? Is it sudden, and for no apparent reason that Amalek comes and attacks Israel? Is the cause for this inherent in Amalek's wickedness alone?
Bible commentators in different generations dealt with this question in different ways. Rashi (following Bereishit Rabba) connects these matters to the previous verse, where the children of Israel express the feeling that Hashem is not in their midst:
Amalek came... - this episode immediately follows the preceding verses to say: "I'm always in your midst and ready [to provide] for all your needs, and you say 'is Hashem in our midst or not?' - I swear that a dog will come and bite you, and you will cry out to me and you will understand where I am." This is likened to a man who placed his son on his shoulder and walked on his way; the son saw an object and said: "Father, pick this up and give it to me", and he gave him; and so it happened a second time, and a third. Then, they met a man, and the son asked him: "Did you see my Father?" Now his father told him: "You don't know where I am?!" He threw [his son] off, and a dog came and bit him.
Divine providence depends on a person's faith, and man's abandonment of God hands the man over to the forces of evil. In the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael (Beshalach, tractate of Amalek, a), another interpretation is brought down, expressing a similar idea:
Amalek came and battled Israel in Refidim... others say: "Refidim" means nothing other than "Refion Yadaim" (=weakness/slackness), indicating that [the children of] Israel became careless about the words of Torah. Therefore, an enemy came upon them, for an enemy only comes [as a punishment/consequence] of carelessness with the Torah.
According to this view, the People of Israel are vulnerable when they abandon the Torah. Rabbi Chizkiah ben Manoach, the author of the commentary "Chizkuni" (1250-1320), and also the Tosafot view the attack by Amalek, grandson of Esav, as an act of revenge for the birthright sale, and these are the words of Chizkuni:
Amalek came - where did he come from? It refers to the above "[Esav] went to a land because of Yaakov his brother(Bereishit 36:6)Rashi interpreted this as follows: "[Esav] left because of the certificate of indebtedness regarding the decree 'that your offspring will be aliens' (Bereishit 15:13), which is upon the offspring of Yitzchak. He said: 'I'm leaving this place; I'm neither interested in the gift (that this land is given to him), nor in paying off the debt', and also because of the shame that he sold his birthright to Yaakov. Therefore Amalek, the son of his son, waited till Israel leavesEgypt and the debt of 'they will serve them and they will oppress them four hundred years' (ibid.) is paid off. And battled Israel - because of the hatred caused by the birthright sale; but before that, [Amalekites] did not come near [Israel], for fear that the payoff for the debt of 'they will serve them and they will oppress them four hundred years' (ibid.) would be placed upon them [as well].
And the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) also gives an explanation about the roots of Amalek:
And Lotan's sister was Timna? - Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, aluf [duke] Lotan (Ber 36:29)aluf [duke] Timna (Ber 36:40), and by 'aluf' an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esav, saying, 'I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.' From her, Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? - Because they should not have repulsed her.
In this case, Amalek "comes" as a consequence of rejecting Timna by our forefathers (could this be our sages' criticism of rabbinic courts that are stringent in matters of accepting proselytes?)
By contrast, the Italian commentator Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio connects the Amalek battle story in our weekly portion to what is said in the weekly portion of "Ki Teitze":
It is explained in Mishne Torah that Amalek's coming was neither from fear of Israel nor because of an evil that the children of Israel did to him, nor for booty. Rather, this villain came because ofhaughtiness of his heart, out of denial of Hashem and his wonders, and to mock the strong hand that Hashem showed over Egypt and at [the splitting of] the sea. And the scoundrel said in his heart that all [those things] are tricks done by humans, and so he came to fight Israel, to announce to everyone that one should not fear them and that there is nothing divine about them. All this the Torah expresses using the phrase "and he did not fear God." (Dvarim 25:18) For he was from the group of Hashem's enemies who are wise in their own eyes, and so Hashem commanded that his memory be wiped out.
This reading of Reggio sees in Amalek's attacking Israel a provocation of the God of Israel by those who deny his existence. It is talking about a kind of a "religious war", without a political or military reason.
It seems to me that the majority of commentators understood that if we are commanded to remember Amalek yet also wipe out his memory, then the commandment does not relate to the memory of the historical event but rather to Amalek as the ultimate enemy of Hashem in the world, and this is what the Netziv writes in his commentary "Haamek Davar(Shmot 17:14):
"Write this as a remembrance in the Book..." which I am telling you "that I shall surely erase the memory of Amalek..." Write it in the Book and also "recite it in the ears of Yehoshua." This is the issue. And apparently, this is superfluous. After all, every word of Hashem to Moshe is written in the Book of Torah, even without [explicit] words of Hashem that he should write it as a remembrance. Also, the matter of "recite it in the ears of Yehoshua" is not clear. But first, let us explain the essence of the statement "that I shall surely erase the memory of Amalek". If this is talking about the kingdom of Amalek, then why did our sages establish the commandment to remember it for generations, after this evil kingdom had already been erased? And even if there are some people from the offspring of that nation in the world, what difference does it make? And if it means that his name and memory be forgotten - this is impossible! After all, the Torah is eternal, and it is mentioning him. Rather, what is meant here is the legacy of Amalek in the world. For it is clear that Amalek challenged Israel with a purpose. He undoubtedly knew that it would not be easy to overcome him. He interfered with a fight not his own. The reason being that Amalek is the "first among nations", as Bil'am said when the light of the Spirit of Holiness appeared before him. This is not to say that [Amalek] is a more successful and happy nation - after all, Amalek had always been an inferior kingdom. Rather, just like the war of Amraphel and his coalition was against Avrahamour father alone, as becomes clear from a careful reading of the scripture in Sefer Bereishit. And he is known as the symbol of judgment [שעל ידו נעשה עין משפט], by way of bringing downProvidence which works according to one's deeds. Thus, from the moment that Israel left Egypt and was ready to receive the Torah, things have become much worse for the nations of the world.And Amalek, the first among nations, deeply hates Providence. And the Holy One Blessed be He promised that the time will come when He will wipe out the memory of Amalek, meaning his purpose and legacy that the ways of nature should be free from Providence [which behaves] according to one's deeds. This drive will be forgotten by the nations of the world and the Lord shall be king over all the earth (Zecharia 14:9). And these are the days of Mashiach who shall come soon, in our days. And Hashem said to Moshe "write this as a remembrance in the Book", like a person who tells his son a story in order to bring his heart closer to morality, and when he comes to a most essential matter, then in order for [this matter] to be rooted deeply in his heart, the father is most careful and says: "remember this, my son." Even though he wants his son to remember the whole story, he still draws his attention especially to the essential matter of the story. Likewise, we are supposed to remember the whole Torah by writing a Book of Torah, but where we see that the Holy One Blessed be He told Moshe "write this as a remembrance in the Book", we must understand from it that we must remember this matter especially well. For this is the requested goal, that the Glory of the Lord will fill the whole earth, and we must have faith that the time for the coming of Mashiach will arrive. And precisely regarding this, Hashem added: "recite it in the ears of Yehoshua" - this is about uttering a secret matter, the [time of Mashiach's coming], which he revealed to his ear. And of course, [Yehoshua] will also reveal this to someone worthy of it.
The Netziv, it seems, sees here an eternal struggle in our world between the believers in a world with Providence, meaning a world where there is a relation between man's behavior and Divine Providence, and the deniers of such belief. He also compares the war of the kings against Avraham to this struggle, where ultimately, we must remember and educate towards a world where everyone will recognize the triumph of Hashem over Amalek.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch famously sees in 'Amalek' a spiritual position which does not characterize a certain group of people or nations, but rather a moral danger which lies in wait for every person and every people, and these are his words:
'Do not forget' - Do not forget this thing if the day comes and you will want to become like Amalek, and, like Amalek, you fail to recognize your obligation and do not know God. Rather, you only seek opportunities, in matters small or great, to exploit your advantage in order to harm your fellow men. Do not forget this if the day comes and you ask to relieve your heart of its role and its mission as Israel that you have taken upon yourself amongst humanity. Do not envy the laurels which a foolish world throws to those happy with having destroyed the happiness of others. Remember the tear-soaked soil which nurtures the laurels of those wreathes, do not forget this thing when the day comes and you yourself suffer Amalek's violence and coarseness. Keep standing straight! Preserve the humanity and values of justice that you learned from your God. The future belongs to them, and in the end humanity and justice will overcome coarseness and violence. You yourself were sent in order to announce and to bring near - with your very example - that overcoming and that future.
Do not forget - and in order that you not forget, "remember" from time to time, renew in your heart the memory of Amalek and what you have been told of its future. (From Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on Devarim 25:19, written circa 1860!)
It seems to me that these words, written by RaShaR Hirsch in the second half of 19th century are still valid today, and we can understand them without a need for explanation. There is a tendency to see in Amalek the ultimate external enemy, and the evil and hatred that were directed against us from various "Amalekites" must not be belittled, but a different reading enables us to observe the "Amalek" in ourselves, in the inclination to take advantage of our fellow man's weakness, in every single one of us, as individuals and as a people.
If so, where does this "Amalek" come from? What are his roots?
Sometimes, he emerges from vengeful feelings towards someone who hurt us; he can also come from a sense of rejection, which causes us to project the evil onto others. However, we cannot ignore the fact that he sometimes comes from a lack of strength. We are given the choice, as individuals, as a group, and as a people, of whether Hashem is "in our midst" or if it's Amalek who is "in our midst". Sometimes, there is a struggle between these two forces, and may we be wise to make the right choices.

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